The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
A Voice from Another World (1865-1893)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
A Voice from Another World was written by the Reverend Wladyslaw Lach-Szyrma and first appeared as a series of articles from 1865-1874. Lach-Szyrma (1841-1915) was English, of noble Polish descent. He taught in Cornwall and devoted himself to helping the Cornish miners. He was made Vicar of Carnmenellis and later Barkingside and founded the West Cornwall paper The Cornishman in 1878. He wrote widely but is today remembered for his science fiction stories.
A Voice from Another World, and all of Lach-Szyrma’s science fiction, is about Aleriel, a native of Venus. The narrator first meets Aleriel in England when he saves a group of sailors during a shipwreck. Afterwards Aleriel introduces himself to the narrator as “Dr. Athanasius Posela.” He seems to be a handsome hunchback, brilliant in every area of human knowledge except history, where he has large gaps. He speaks all languages well but none perfectly and always with a strange, unidentifiable accept. The narrator learns that Doctor Posela is extremely gifted as a healer but never charges for his services, and that whenever he grows too famous he moves and goes elsewhere. Posela becomes popular with the locals but soon strange lights are seen in the moor near the town in which Posela and the narrator live. The narrator investigates and sees the lights forming into strange symbols on the ground, writing in a language he has never seen. The narrator discovers that it is Posela who is creating the lights, and he admits that he is writing “a letter to my friends.” When the narrator begs Posela to explain himself, he does, revealing that he is actually “Aleriel,” an angelic being. He is not a hunchback; he folded his wings up and hid them beneath his clothes, making him appear to be hunchbacked. Aleriel explains that he is not an angel, but an alien, but one that fits into God’s design:
...once I was less than man—lower in creation’s order—less strong, less wise, farther off from God’s eternal image. But Man fell and we fell not. Thus we never sinned, and never sinning never suffered, save in holy sympathy with other’s woe, of which we had only heard. And thus we are immortal.1
Aleriel has come to Earth to know more of “His works,” but has found the Earth to be full of suffering and sin. Aleriel explains to the narrator that the universe is full of “billions and quadrillions of worlds,” and all the beings on all those worlds have souls: “The Catholic Church of God is universal.”2 Aleriel gives the narrator a vision of his own world, which is idyllic; Aleriel’s people have successfully linked science with religion. Aleriel tells the narrator about “the First Christmas Day” and then leaves to explore the Earth. In Aleriel; or, A Voyage to Other Worlds (1883), the sequel to A Voice from Another World, Aleriel saves the narrator from the Prussians during the Siege of Paris and then bids farewell to the narrator and returns home to Venus. Aleriel consists of letters from Aleriel to the narrator of Voice about the other planets. Aleriel’s home, Venus, is a peaceful planet with an advanced society and technology superior to Earth’s. Their planet is a tropical paradise without sin or death. The Venusians build Aleriel an anti-gravity “ether car,” and Aleriel and several friends use it to visit the other planets. Mars is described as being in the next stage beyond Earth, with one state, one language, and one religion. The Martians, who are giant, leonine humanoids, have technology inferior to the Venusians but beyond humanity. Although the Martians do not speak any language that humans or Venusians recognize, Aleriel can still communicate with them via “international symbolism.” Jupiter is mostly ocean with a few floating islands. The natives are gigantic fish-like humanoids who are extremely logical and live in underwater cities. Saturn is essentially Earth at an earlier stage of development, covered with giant mushrooms and enormous, insectile monsters. Letters from the Planets (1887) expands on the planets, showing Mercury to be filled with technologically-advanced natives living in floating cities and the moon to have been inhabited ages ago by yet another advanced civilization.
The Aleriel stories are mildly diverting, but Lach-Szyrma’s attempt to meld science and religion is unconvincing, and his proselytizing becomes tedious. Lach-Szyrma’s intention in writing the Aleriel stories was not to realistically portray possible aliens, but rather to combine his own religious ideas and moral philosophy with the matter of “pluralism,” or intelligent life on other planets. Pluralism was widely accepted by the mid-nineteenth century, and the Aleriel stories are Lach-Szyrma’s attempt at portraying ethically enlightened aliens as part of God’s greater plan. The Venusians’ names are vaguely Jewish and resonant with the names of angels in Christian tradition, and various aliens are vehicles for Lach-Szyrma’s theology.
What’s most interesting about A Voice From Another World and the rest of the Aleriel stories is Lach-Szyrma’s attempt to make use of pre-existing subgenres of Victorian science fiction. Lach-Szyrma clearly knew his contemporary science fiction, so that A Voice From Another World is in the superior-alien-visits-inferior-Victorian-Earth genre of sf (see: The Triumphs of Women). Moreover, Aleriel and its sequels are arguably the first in the Victorians-take-a-trip-through-the-solar-system genre of sf (see: “A Visit to the Moon,” The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist). Too, A Voice From Another World features the first use of the word “Martian” to describe a hypothetical native of the planet Mars.
In his role as messenger, guide, and instigator of change, Aleriel preﬁgures the incarnations of a ‘‘Man from Mars’’ who appears in a number of late-nineteenth and twentieth-century works, from William Simpson’s The Man from Mars (1891) and George Du Maurier’s The Martian (1897) through Robert Heinlein’s Valentine Michael Smith of Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and Walter Tevis’s Man Who Fell to Earth (1963). The beneﬁcent extraterrestrial typically has angelic status in these narratives (the Greek ‘‘angelos’’ means messenger)—a link that Lach-Szyrma establishes almost literally with his winged visitor from Venus. That he is named Aleriel— perhaps derived from the Greek a + lereo, meaning not silly, not foolish— may suggest that the author intended a no-nonsense angel.3
As with many another example of Victorian science fiction described in this book, A Voice From Another World is more of interest contextually and historically than as fiction.
Print: Wladyslaw Lach-Szyrma, Aleriel or, A Voyage to Other Worlds and Letters from the Planets (Riverdale, CA: 2013).
1 W.S.L.S., A Voice From Another World (Oxford: James Parker, 1874), 18.
2 W.S.L.S., A Voice From Another World, 31.
3 Robert Crossley, Imagining Mars: A Literary History (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), 48.